School

Ask a Teacher: the Three Things Parents Do That Annoy Me the Most

Back-to-school advice from inside the classroom.

An annoyed teacher.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Ask a Teacher is Slate’s back-to-school advice column. If you’ve got questions for Matthew Dicks, a 20-year veteran of the classroom, send them to matthewdicks@gmail.com.

My wonderful daughter is headed to kindergarten. I’m excited for her and she’s ready to start. I was a shy kid and I can see that she is too. I did fine in school. I excelled academically and always had a best friend, so I don’t know why I can’t just assume she’ll do fine, too. Do you have advice for how I can help her navigate being shy in a new big school? I want her to be respectful, but I also want her to have a voice and speak up for herself and not feel like she has to always be a “good girl.” Do you recommend I say anything about my daughter’s personality to her teacher?

I have lots of good news for you. Your child is normal. Many, many shy children arrive at school each year. My son, now entering first grade, was one of them. Shy kids often befriend other shy kids, at least at first, so your daughter is likely to find kids just like her at school. She will find her people.

Also, you’re normal. Many, many parents, and especially first-time kindergarten parents, worry about the happiness, safety, and well-being of their children while at school. Of course you’re worried. You want the best for your little girl.

Rest assured that teachers know how to help shy children find friends and feel comfortable in their new environment. This is incredibly important to all teachers, but especially kindergarten teachers. Teachers do not ignore shy children simply because they are quiet. In fact, we zero in on those kids, finding ways to connect them with their classmates.

All that said, there’s nothing wrong with writing an email or a letter to the teacher saying everything you want to say about your little girl. Spill your guts. You know your daughter better than anyone, so let the teacher know anything and everything that you think is important.

In order to ensure that this email or letter is received well, you should give the teacher time to read it. If you send it now, stress that you’re not expecting to hear back instantly and that you’re happy to chat once school’s been going for a few weeks.

You should also express trust in the teacher. A sentence like “I know you’re going to take care of my little one, and I’m so excited that she’s in your class, but I thought this information could make your job a little easier” can go a long way. And if you’ve written eight or 10 or 53 pages, perhaps acknowledge that you can get a little crazy when it comes to your child, but you just love her so much. Demonstrating a little self-awareness will make it less likely for the teacher to think you’re going to be a headache all year long.

What are the three things parents do that annoy you the most?

Parents can get a little crazy when it comes to their kids, but they just love them so much! Keeping this in mind has always been helpful to me when parents are at their most irrational. And now that I am a parent, I understand that irrationality better than ever.

That said, here are the three things that parents do that annoy me the most:

1. Going over my head instead of bringing a problem to my attention first.

This is almost always a lousy thing to do in any organization, but it’s even more precarious when children are involved, because the perceptions of children of any age can be oddly and incomprehensibly skewed. Kids just see and hear things incorrectly all the time. A former colleague, a kindergarten teacher, would tell parents, “I’ll only believe half of what your child says about you if you’ll only believe half of what your child says about me.”

The teacher wasn’t being literal, of course, but was making the point that when it comes to children of any age, the truth can be difficult to discern. If you have a concern about a teacher or something happening in class, start with the teacher. Jumping ahead to an administrator is an excellent way of damaging the productive relationship that you should have with your child’s teacher.

2. Ignoring my attempts at communication.

As a parent of two children, I understand how easily school can inundate families with paperwork. Permission slips. Newsletters. Curriculum updates. Corrected work. But if a teacher is specifically taking the time to communicate with you, please take the time to read that communication. There’s nothing more frustrating for a teacher than to receive a phone call two days before a field trip from a parent who knows nothing about the trip despite the fact that the teacher has sent home several notices and posted the information on her classroom blog or in an email.

Teachers go to extraordinary lengths at times to connect with parents and communicate effectively. Please don’t ignore their efforts.

3. Speaking disparagingly about me to your child.

Kids tell us everything. When you tell your child that my homework assignment is stupid, my plan for a Thanksgiving feast is shortsighted, or that I shouldn’t be leaping on desks in the middle of class and shouting Shakespearean quotes, you undermine my authority.

In return, teachers will do the same for you. We don’t tell students that their midnight bedtimes are inappropriate. We don’t tell students that their parents’ decision to pull their child from class every Friday for a hockey tournament is misguided. We don’t criticize the healthiness of snacks sent into school or mention how odd it was to find a condom in their child’s backpack. (“Dad took my backpack on his camping trip this weekend!”)

Ideally, your child should view the parent-teacher relationship as a powerful, unbreakable bond. There’s nothing more disconcerting to a misbehaving student than seeing me exchange text messages with their parent about something that happened in class moments before.

As annoyed, angry, upset, or frustrated you might be with a teacher, don’t let your child see or hear it. Let your child’s teacher see or hear it.

If I’m not getting along with a teacher, will she take it out on my child?

Never. In my 20 years of teaching, I have never met a teacher who would treat a student differently in any way despite any kind of fraught relationship she may have with the parent. Human beings become teachers because they want the best for children, regardless of how difficult or awkward a child’s parent may be.

I have rarely experienced problems with parents, but it happens on occasion. Early in my career, I heard a parent use a racial epithet on more than one occasion. A mother once kissed me (really kissed me) in the middle of a parent-teacher conference. A father once told me that the language used in one of my novels (written for adults) was “blasphemous and inappropriate” for someone who was teaching children.

While I had issues with each of these parents, I loved their children just as much as any other child in my class. Teachers can separate the actions of parents and guardians from their children very effectively.

Our fourth-grader has a specific learning disability in written expression that is complicated by some fine motor weakness in her right hand. Anything involving writing is basically torture. On the other hand, she loves math and science and is performing well above grade level in those domains. The result is that she is bored in her favorite subjects, because she’s ahead of the rest of the class, and miserable in the others, because she struggles to keep up.

We’ve met with the school, and she has some accommodations in place, but in the meantime I have to deal with tears several times a week, along with frequent complaints about how school is a useless, boring, dystopian hellscape. This attitude has now been adopted by our first-grader, who adored pre-K but now moans and complains as much as her sister. I’m trying to provide encouragement and foster a love of learning, but after more than a year of this I don’t feel that I’ve made any progress. Any advice?

This is the toughest question I’ve had to answer so far, because there is not much that a parent can do to foster a love for school without the assistance of a teacher. As much support and encouragement as may you provide at home, the truth is that your child will spend seven hours a day in school without you. I recommend closely partnering with your child’s teacher and making it clear that her love for learning and for school is your primary goal, ahead of any other academic concern. Together, you must find ways to help your child find joy and success in learning.

For me, this has meant meeting with parents to find areas of specific interest for a child, integrating those interests into the classroom, and eliminating roadblocks. Children learn best when the learning is fun. For a child with fine motor issues and difficulty with writing, for example, this might mean allowing that child to use voice-to-text for her rough drafts. It probably means expanding the writing topics available to the child. Experimenting with a variety of technologies. Creating authentic purposes for her writing.

I teach children to write letters to restaurants when service is poor. Just imagine their joy when they receive a $50 gift card to the restaurant in response. I might encourage your science-inclined child to enter a science fair. Or create and manage her own science fair. This will require writing, but she may see greater value and purpose to this writing.

These are just a few ideas. But you can’t do it alone. You and your child’s teacher must work together to help your child. Without that partnership and a willingness to experiment, go the extra mile, and be flexible for the sake of a student’s enjoyment of learning, little progress can be made.